The Tent and the Wall

Tracy Metz contemplates the "Bilbao effect" gripping the Louvre and the Pompidou Centre, which drove them to establish satellites in northern France.

Two of France’s premier cultural institutions, the Louvre and the Centre Pompidou, have – like the Guggenheim - opened satellites at peripheral locations in the north of the country, generally regarded as a cultural desert.

Why, I wondered? After all, in this relentlessly centralistic country Paris is still the cultural heart and capital. And how different are these satellites from their very different motherships?

With its rough ‘n tough industrial esthetic, the Centre Pompidou’s Paris building by Renzo Piano and Richard Rodgers (1977) was the talk of its time. The building in Metz (2010), the scruffy neighbor of fancypants Nancy, is much softer, featuring a swoopy asymmetrical tentlike roof of textile over a beautifully wrought wooden frame. The Japanese architect, Shigeru Ban, has made a name for himself with ingenious, ultra-affordable structures of cardboard used in disaster relief; his newest opened last week, a cathedral for Christchurch, New Zealand after the earthquake.

The building under the tent, however, by the French architect Jean de Gastines, is a purely conventional orthogonal structure, giving the sense of a mismatch in the architects’ agendas. The galleries for the current exhibition – which is wonderful - look purpose-built, meaning that it will be laborious and expensive to mount new shows. This show (up until Oct. 7), Vu d’en Haut or Views from Above, is about the impact of the aerial view on art and architecture. An elevated perspective, from the first aerial photographs of the 19th century to the satellite images of Google Earth and the omnipresent CCTV cameras, has transformed our entire way of perceiving our surroundings. One of the artists featured is Mass.-based and GSD-trained aerial photographer Alex MacLean (MArch 73).

There is also a mismatch in Lens, but here it is between the former northern French mining town and the shiny, sophisticated building for the Louvre by Sanaa (2012) – also a Japanese firm, designers of the New Museum in New York - on the site of a former coal pit that was closed in the eighties. The aluminum-clad building, or rather the sequence of five halls, is all shimmer and light and reflection, especially the spacious central area where the various pavilions are encased in what look like floating glass bubbles in a free-flowing space.

In the permanent exhibition, the almost 400-foot long Gallery of Time, the visitor is led through time and art history with a thoughtfully curated story and amazingly accessible objects, leading from the Egyptians to Roman statues to Islamic ceramics and finally to the Romanticism of the nineteenth century. All of a sudden, presented in this seamless fashion, they seem to be interrelated in a way that was never so apparent before.

The "Bilbao-effect” has reverberated all over the world, and with reason. Ever since Frank Gehry’s glistening titanium ocean liner landed in this hardscrabble industrial city in Spain’s Basque country, it has been a huge draw. It has since inspired both national governments and countless second- and third-tier cities to see art and architecture as instruments of urban regeneration that create jobs and stimulate tourist cash flow. In Architectural Review William Curtis – who, by the way, detested the Sanaa building - called Louvre-Lens "a daring exercise in cultural decentralisation and outreach” and "a gesture of extreme optimism in the face of the dark realities confronting the post-industrial economy.”

So back to the question: why?  In themselves the reasons are laudable. Government in the person of President Chirac decided in 2003 that the national museum should have a presence outside the capital, and boost the economy by doing so. With success: the Pompidou in Metz is now France’s most visited cultural venue outside Paris. In addition, the Louvre wanted to relieve the pressure of the large number of visitors to the Paris museum.

Metz and Lens are not the end of the ambitions to expand. The Pompidou was working with the Guggenheim on a shared venue in Hong Kong, but that has fallen through. The Louvre, however, started work in 2007 on a new branch by Jean Nouvel in Abu Dhabi, which was supposed to open next year. And the Musée d’Orsay has plans for a branch in Normandy.

Metz is not far from Nancy, itself a popular destination, thereby helping to spread the cultural and financial love further in northern France. By why the drab mining town of Lens – and then so far out of town that visitors may very well give it a miss, especially now that there is an excellent restaurant on the property? (Curtis again: "Why this nosedive of a town? Why not Toulouse, or Lille, or around Nice?”) The most jealously guarded secret, therefore, is what cities like Bilbao, Metz and Lens offer the museums in return: free land? Ease of permitting? Nobody’s telling. 

Read William Curtis in Architectural Review

Tagged , , , |

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *